INDIANAPOLIS – When Ryan Newman crossed the start-finish line Sunday to claim the Samuel Deeds 400—aka the Brickyard 400—the lyrics of a song that topped the charts more than 40 years ago came to mind.
"They say you don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the ol' Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with Jim." – "Big Jim Walker" by the late Jim Croce.
Well, Newman did all that in Sunday's race, not only messing around with but also beating Jim—in this case, Jimmie Johnson—at his own game. It's something that is so rarely done that the way Newman beat Johnson is as important as how he did it.
"Just an awesome day for us," Newman said of his 17th career Sprint Cup win. "This is a dream come true for me. It will take a week or so for this to set in."
A brilliant pit call by crew chief Matt Borland, calling for just two tires and fuel coupled with outstanding work by Newman's pit crew, eventually put the No. 39 Chevrolet past Johnson by Lap 142 with 18 laps to go—and the rest became yet another chapter of history written in the Brickyard 400's 20-year legacy.
In short, that legacy will read: Home-state kid (Newman is from South Bend, Ind.) makes good, does so at the track he's always dreamed of winning at, and never gave up even knowing he'll be out of a job and ride at season's end.
Johnson, who was hoping to repeat last year's Brickyard 400 win and also become the first driver to win five of the mid-summer classic, looked like he had the best car in the field, leading 73 of the race's 160 laps. He dominated at times, stretching out to two- and three-second leads at some points.
But when Johnson, Newman and other the contenders made their final pit stops, Newman came into the pits first on Lap 133, but had an agonizingly slow service—18 seconds for four tires and fuel—while Newman came in one lap later and was a blistering seven seconds faster than Johnson's.
"We definitely had a mistake on our stop," Johnson said. "Could have been four seconds closer leaving pit road. … Stuff happens. When you're the dominant car, they're going to do the opposite of what you do. I pitted before (Newman), so it was an easy call for them to do the opposite. The two (tires that Newman took compared to four for Johnson) gave them the track position they needed."
As pit stops continued to cycle around, Newman methodically worked his way up from seventh to first, with Johnson unable to get much closer, ultimately ceding the win by a 2.657-second gap and an average speed of 153.485 mph, third-fastest in Brickyard 400 annals.
It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle between a team known for greatness (Johnson's) against a team that is still learning its way in its first season together in 2013—and in what will ultimately be its last as well, as Newman was told two weeks ago that he would be out of Stewart-Haas Racing at season's end due to lack of sponsorship.
Newman's best finish in the 400 prior to Sunday had been fourth (2002), while finishing second marked the first time Johnson has placed in the top-five of the 400 without actually winning it. His prior wins came in 2006, 2008, 2009 and last year.
"This was probably the best car I've ever driven in my life," said Newman, who now has to make room for the 400 trophy next to his 2008 Daytona 500 winning trophy. "It's just an exciting day."
What made Sunday's outcome even more intriguing is that like a fine thoroughbred, Johnson led at the quarter, half and three-quarter pole so to speak, leading the race at Laps 40, 80 and 120. But when it came to reaching the finish line first, Johnson ultimately wound up being—as Ricky Bobby would say—the first loser.
"We had a great race car and great performance," Johnson said. "Track position was really important, especially the way my car was driving (tight in and loose off most of the race). Although it had plenty of speed, it wasn't the easiest thing to drive."
Newman began the day at the front of the field by virtue of qualifying No. 1 and ended the day also finishing No. 1, only the third driver to win the 400 from the pole. He beat NASCAR's version of Superman and stripped him of his cape. It doesn't get much better than that.
"There's definitely disappointment there, but that's racing, it happens," Johnson said. "I've given a few away out there this year, too. Ryan was fast all day long. I can't take anything away from him. He was plenty fast."
* All quotes were obtained by the writer.
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